The Law and New Covenant Christians, part 2

One of the things that makes it so difficult to think about how the law applies, or if the law applies, to New Covenant believers is the inconsistent use of the word “law” (greek ‘nomos’) in the New Testament, especially in Paul. For example, Paul may use the word “law” to refer to the entire Pentateuch (Romans 3:21). In the same verse, however, Paul uses the word “law” to meaning something like “works of the law”. In Romans 3:27 he uses to word to mean something like “principle”. In still other places it seems as though Paul uses the word “law” with special reference to the Judaizers “law keeping” as a means to justification. It may be possible to add more nuances, but you get the idea.

So, when asking if the law applies to New Covenant Believers, we must be careful that we know what sense of the law we are referring to. Certainly we would all want to agree that much of the Pentateuch applies to us. So we aren’t dead to the law in that sense. Moreover, I don’t think anyone would want to argue that we are under the law in the sense of the Judaizers law-keeping which leads to justification (that was never the intention of the law when given at Mt. Sinai, how could it be now?).

Ok, that aside, let me state my position: I do believe that we, as Christians, are obligated to keep the law. Now that needs a lot of clarification, so stick with me (not just in this post, but over the next few).

I think it is important to realize that there is an element of law in each of the biblical covenants. Law was not introduced in the Mosaic era, though law certainly does play a much more prominent role in the Mosaic covenant. Actually, I don’t even know if saying like that is as accurate as I would like to be. Let me try again: the external codification of law plays a much more prominent role in the Mosaic covenant than in the other Bible covenants (that’s better, but still needs work).

You can certainly find law in the pre-fall covenant God imposed upon Adam (sometimes referred to as the “covenant of works” or the “covenant of creation”. In Genesis 1&2 you see that man was given responsibilities unique to his status as an image bearer. He was to exercise dominion over creation, and he was to multiply and fill the earth. In addition, he was given the specific command – not to eat from the tree in the center of the Garden.

The Noahic Covenant contains commands as well. The covenant relationship begins with the command to build the ark. Again, at the inauguration of the covenant in Gen 9, Noah receives the command to “be fruitful and multiply”, the prohibition against eating food with its blood still in it, as well as the decree of God’s will regarding murderers (v.5-6).

In the Abrahamic Covenant, law is important as well. At the outset of the covenant relationship, Abraham is required to leave his land and family and set out the place God would show him. In addition, as the covenant with Abraham is more fully established, the seal of the covenant, circumcision, becomes a mandatory rite for those who would enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant. Stern warnings were issued against neglecting this sign/seal, and severe penalties were to be actuated against those how spurned this covenant rite (see a rather startling instance of this in the life of Moses recorded in Exodus 4).

In the Davidic Covenant, again law is important (though I’ll say it again, not as prominent as in the Mosaic covenant). God speaks of discipline and correction for law breaking as he makes this Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:14). Certainly that only makes sense in terms of law and law breaking. Moreover, the role of the Mosaic Covenant and its laws is clearly articulated in Davids words to Solomon in 1 Kings 2:1-4. Further, the history of Israel is a often sad reminder that law breaking has dire consequences to the people of God.

That brings us, finally, to the New Covenant. Again, I believe the law plays a important role in the New Covenant (I’ll deal more specifically with some of Paul’s comments regarding the law at a later date). It is extremely important to note that it is not freedom from the law that the OT prophets look for, but instead freedom to keep the law. In Jeremiah 31, God promises that when he establishes his new covenant with his people he will “put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” (31:33, ESV). Moreover, that Jesus makes demands of his followers can hardly be denied (I like the title of Piper’s newest book, “What Jesus Demands of the World”).

For now, I hope I’ve established that the principle of law transcends the Mosaic Covenant. We’ll have to give more detailed consideration as to how the law as administered under the Mosaic Covenant applies to us today in a subsequent post.

11 thoughts on “The Law and New Covenant Christians, part 2

  1. I’m all for recognizing that the same word doesn’t mean the same thing each time it is used–meaning is contextual. You give two excellent examples of that.

    On the other hand, biblical terms often have a center of meaning. What you are calling “the principle of law” is perhaps a useful concept, though I’m not sure it’s the best term for it (don’t have a better one just now, though!).

    I think the usual understanding of “law” or more particularly “Law” in the Bible is “the Law of Moses.”

    But let me instead shift to a different word–the word “apply”, as in, “Certainly we would all want to agree that much of the Pentateuch applies to us,” as you wrote. The key to application is the theological framework one brings to the Bible, and our place in it. In fact I believe the entire Old Testament “applies to us”. However, I’m hoping we’ll all certainly want to agree that much of the Pentateuch does not apply to us in the same way that it applied to Ethan the Ezrahite (say) or even to John the Baptist.

    At this point I’ll be forthcoming and say that I do think this is a very tricky topic–how the Law (in the usual sense that I defined earlier) applies to us. I do not think I have “the answer” and I’m very open to learning here–that’s why I’m participating. The kind of answer most likely to satisfy me is an answer that “rings true” with all of Scripture–that does no hermeneutic violence to any part of the text. So much do I care about the text that I am even willing to suffer some degree of inconsistency or paradox in my theological system.

    The other thing about a satisfying answer (for me) is that it should be of practical, pastoral use. It should help me decide how to deal with people who frown at my Sunday lawn mowing or who apply the promise of 2 Chron. 7:14, “will heal their land” to the USA. Or even O. Palmer Robertson, who says we have a “mandate to form a culture glorifying to God” (Mark’s gauntlet drops…thump!).

    I don’t think your statement that “Christians are obligated to keep the law” is particularly helpful as stated unless the immediate context is reporting income to the IRS or not drinking underage. Outside that context, but in a theological context, it would sound as if you’re throwing your lot with those whom Paul condemns in Galatians–those who “want to keep the law”. I don’t think you are–I don’t believe you’d insist Christians be circumcised, for instance. And I understand Paul was primarily addressing those who advocated keeping the law for purposes of justification. But Paul also says that we are no longer under the Law (3:25).

    So, trusting you not to pull anathemas down on yourself, I will indeed stick with you and see how you clarify this. And I look forward to hearing the practical, pastoral consequences that necessitate this discussion. It’s clear to me that you think there are neglected implications.

    (BTW, don’t bother to respond to my comments unless you really want to–I don’t expect it. Just carry on with your study and let us know how it’s going.)

  2. Mark,
    Thanks for your very helpful comments. Many of your concerns probably would’ve been addressed if I had planned my blogging to proceed in way that flowed and built progressively. As it is now, it’s kind of going to be what I’m thinking about on that given day.
    As for the center of the meaning of ‘law’, I agree. As a first proposal, how about “the revealed will of God which binds creature to obey”. I don’t know, sounds good! That would incorporate ‘natural law’ as well as ‘special revelation”.
    Additionally, I agree that the Pentetauch doesn’t apply to us in the same we it did to those who lived under that epoch. My concern is with those who, influence by the dispensational school, seem to neglect the vaue of so much of the OT except as histroy of how God works. I believe there are principles revealed in the Pentateuch that are binding to us new covenanters.
    I think I’ll be able to ease your concerns that I’m no Judaizer in forthcoming posts.
    On a personal note, I don’t mow the lawn on Sundays; however, I decided not to pursue ministry or ordination in the PCA because I considered their stance on the Sabbath to legalistic and extra biblical (I believe it contains a statement about abstaining from worldly entertainment. Uh, I like football!).

  3. I’m following along too. I don’t want to dive right in at this stage and muddy the waters; like Mark I’m going to hang back and wait for what you have yet to say.

    But I can’t resist at least dipping in a big toe…

    My own perception is that a fair number of believers have inherited a fudged understanding of the scope and purpose of the Mosaic law, which has left them with a flawed grasp of what it means to please God. This in turn renders them vulnerable to a legalistic outlook and lifestyle, together with a fragile and transient faith, the result of which is an inferior relationship with God and love for others.

    I’ll be quiet now.

  4. Mark,
    I’m curious about your comment regarding Robertsons claim that we have a mandate to create a glorifying to God. I’m aware of the errors of the theonomic theologians, but my question is, if not a God glorifying culture, what kind of culture are we to craft. Either 1) we are ambivalent about the kind of culture we are contributing to, or 2) we neglect to contribute to it at all, or 3) we strive to shape it in more God honoring ways. Right?

  5. I don’t think we have a mandate to craft any kind of culture in this present world. Within the church, certainly. Outside, I think we all contribute to the culture, generally as a side effect of our work, citizenship, or leisure, and we should try to be sure we’re doing “good deeds”. The way Robertson and other Covenant theologians write about it, it sounds like they think we as the church (not just as individuals) have a mandate to build a city-on-a-hill society (a la Calvin’s Geneva or the Pilgrim’s Plymouth Colony).

    I reject such a notion, whether for the church, or even for me as an individual. While I am responsible to do good deeds, I don’t believe I am responsible to try to engineer a God-glorifying culture here or elsewhere. Rare individuals like a Wilberforce may sometimes be able to shape their culture significantly by virtue of their extraordinary range of influence.

    For me, this issue becomes practical when I have to decide what to study, what job to take, or where to devote my free moments. I try to do good deeds in my work. As a usability specialist, I’d like to think I am reducing the unnecessary suffering in the world brought about by poorly designed technologies. This doesn’t compare with the abolition of slavery, but at least it is something.

    As Christians, we have a “job one” to do–the Great Commission. Paul sometimes refers to this as “the work.” I believe I (and the church) should generally prioritize “the work” above humanitarian aims, though there are of course times when we must make exceptions–the Good Samaritan parable teaches us that. Global missions should be a higher priority than global warming (but that’s another covenant discussion).

    I don’t think I am misreading Robertson–he’s not talking about the kind of culture we need inside the church. He’s talking about a mandate for intentional social transformation. The people to whom the Great Commission was given, and who wrote the NT, do not seem to have felt any such mandate. Yet Covenant theologians confidently support it from the OT and the Gospels. That is why the question of how these apply to us is such a crucial one.

    I hope you will extend your wariness of Dispensationalists to Covenant theologians as well. There are both continuities and discontinuities between the covenants.

    “It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:18)

    So, regarding your multiple choice question, I pick either “none of the above” or “all of the above”. As citizens of heaven, we don’t want to be toxic or obnoxious ambassadors while we are here, but neither do we want to so entangle ourselves in the affairs of this world that we lose sight of the main reason we’re here.

    This is an issue I’m quite passionate about even though it places me outside where mainstream (or at least highbrow) Evangelical thought has been heading oh so gradually since the Lausanne Covenant. But even in this issue, I’m happy to change my mind if I can learn to read the Scriptures in a different way.

  6. Mark,
    Thanks again for your insights here. I think we actually agree on more than it might appear. We do disagree, however, on the cultural mandate. I found the specific section in Robertson that you are talking about, and I agree with your assessment of him and with his conclusions. I see from Scripture that God’s program for his creation isn’t just to save some human souls and bring them to heaven with him, but is more inclusive. It is about all his creation – undoing the effects of sin in all aspects of the created order.

    Consequently, just as we have a role to play in the accomplishment of the Great Commission, I think we also have a role to play in the ‘cultural mandate’. I don’t like Robertsons phrase that these two ‘merge with one another’, but I do think they are very tightly related. It is after all, as Robertson points out, the Gospel of the Kingdom, and I do resist the trend to minimalize the gospel to, say Four Spiritual Laws.

    Hyper-Calvinists see God as sovereign and completely capable of saving the elect without their help, so they un-involve themselves in the Great Commission. I see parallels between the Hyper-Calvinist approach to evangelism/missions and many evangelicals approach to their culture (ie. we’ll wait for God to do it in the millennial kingdom).

    That is actually one of my biggest issues with dispensationalism. I acknowledge that I may not be given them a fair shake. My views of dispensationalism are shaped almost entirely by my Dad’s teachings and by my reading of Ryrie’s “Dispensationalism”. His book made me about as angry as any I’ve ever read. I’ve had dispensational friends who’ve encouraged me to read the newer ‘progressive’ guys, but I haven’t done that as of yet.

    Mark, I fully agree with you that the Great Commission is ‘job one’ for the church. No doubts in my mind about that. No doubt that global missions should be a higher priority than global warming (but it isn’t be an either/or scenario, I don’t think).

    However, I think that as we do this, as we make disciples who want to glorify God in all aspects of their life, the church will be salt and light not just on the personal, individual basis, but corporately and on it’s culture. Certainly we contribute to our culture in different ways. For me, I contribute mainly by what I consume. But as artists and poets become disciples, certainly their call to ‘do everything to the glory of God’ will lead them into cultural engagement.

    As far as wariness goes, I’m increasingly wary of any system of theology that declares dogmatically that it has it all figured out. I do think that Covenant theology does a better job accounting for the unity and the diversity of the covenants, but see holes.

  7. I look forward to learning more about why and how we are supposed to undo the effects of sin in the whole created order. God’s plan is big, but I don’t know that our role includes that mandate–I don’t see it. Look at what the apostles did, and what they taught.

    When I say the Great Commission is job one, I don’t mean either/or, but neither do I mean both/and. There is a prioritization, a focus. I like Paul’s ambassador metaphor, or the strangers & aliens one.

    To my mind there is a big difference between trying to fulfill a “mandate to form a culture glorifying to God” and a mandate to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus…”. A difference of emphasis, a difference of degree, at least.

    I don’t think we’re probably far apart in practice–and I actually prefer to discuss these issues with reference to practice. Most NT teaching is intensely practical. Our theology, sadly, is often aloof.

  8. Mark, i love this discussion about the ‘cultural mandate’. I really have only begun to think about this, and I don’t know that we’d be any different in practice at all.

    In my post, I spoke about God undoing the effects of sin and then leaped to talking about our role in that. I don’t think we can undue the effects of sin, though I think we are called to ‘push against’ the tangible effects of sin. I do see the early church doing this – feeding the hungry, taking up collections for the poor, rescuing abandoned babies…

    And I don’t see the difference between the mandate to build a culture glorifying to God and one that denies ungodliness… The difference is wording. It’s like saying, “respect human life and private property” vs. “don’t murder and don’t steal”. One is framing the idea in the positive, the other is the flip side of the same coin. That’s why we don’t differ in how we live it out.

    And we probably don’t think much about our choices as contributing to our culture. Maybe the cultural elites do. But if I and my family refrain from, lets say, ungodly entertainment, then we’re building a family culture that is more glorifying to God than if we did not. And if a church does that, they’ve contributed to a church culture that is more glorifying. And if a lot of churches in Bloomington did it…and if all the churches of Christ did what they were suppose to…

  9. If that’s what you mean by a cultural mandate, then we’re indeed not far apart. But when I hear the words “cultural mandate” I don’t think of the side effects of godly living. I think of churches organizing to protest laws, to push certain candidates or ballot measures, or to otherwise influence public policy. Or Calvin’s Geneva. Or the Puritans’ New England. I think Robertson meant something broader and more active than entertainment choices.

    I just want to be sure you don’t sneak the phrase past me by claiming it’s about not watching sleazy movies and the next thing I know, you’re handing me a petition in church! (I’m kidding. Well, just about the Dan part. I have been handed petitions in church before, happily not our church.)

    And I agree that if all of us who claim the name of Christ lived godly lives, the world would take notice (and probably persecute us more!).

  10. Mark, I think we are close, though my choice of entertainment was only illustrative, not exhaustive. I do think our desire to glorify God will effect how we vote, what we protest, etc. However, I would also resist most notions of a Christian stance on political/social issues. I think the issues are complex and godly believer striving to live out their cultural mandate might come to different conclusions on the right course of action. The long and the short of it – no petitions in church from Dan.

    I do also think that Christians should run for public office as God has gifted and called them.

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